The secrets of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Issue: 163

James Preece

When the manuscript of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four landed on his desk in late 1948, writes a biographer, his publisher fired off an internal memorandum stating that it “represented ‘a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism and socialist parties generally’. The book was worth a million votes to the Conservative Party, and could plausibly be issued with a preface by Winston Churchill”.1 From the beginning, it seems, Orwell’s last novel inspired deep suspicion of his political intentions.

For 70 years his dystopian vision—which depicts a totalitarian socialist state that nationalises “truth” and crushes dissent in the mind—has been used by the right wing as an example of the logical end-point of radical politics. At the same time, liberal and left-wing readers have tended to rescue some sense of progress from the book, lending an anarchistic interpretation to the book’s love of individual freedom and responsibility. When Edward Snowden addressed the world in 2013, shortly after the Snowden Affair that unveiled the extent of the surveillance state in the United States, it was to Orwell he turned: “George Orwell warned us of the danger of this kind of information”.2 In any case, Nineteen Eighty-Four has become one of the most influential English books of all time, with “Room 101”, “doublethink”, “Big Brother” and “Thought Police” all ­becoming household terms. It is the reason that the writer’s pen-name has become the classic adjective of government overreach into private life: Orwellian.

However, Snowden’s 2013 speech brought to light an interesting 21st century inversion of the book’s traditional interpretation. In our century, which has already witnessed the War on Terror, economic cataclysm and swelling inequality, the defenders of Western governments have consistently used Orwell to defend the ruling order. Which 21st century writer could be more associated with Orwell than Christopher Hitchens, the liberal interventionalist who became a leading advocate of Tony Blair’s Iraq War? Many readers will be familiar with the frustration of having passages of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s war reportage on the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), read back to them by “humanitarian interventionists”, in an attempt to justify the backing of rebel forces in war-torn countries. Jeremy Corbyn, emerging as Labour leader in 2016, must have been surprised to read all the liberal articles trying to undermine his republicanism by misinterpreting Orwell as a monarchist.3

At the root of this ongoing dispute is the so-called “Orwell Problem”, the contradiction between Orwell’s extensive critique of capitalism and desire for a workable socialist utopia on the one hand, and on the other, his horror at the realities of European socialism. Arthur Eckstein writes:

It is clear that by the mid-1940s Orwell found himself caught in a terrible intellectual dilemma. He called himself a socialist, and despised capitalism, yet his critique of the powerful statist tendencies and frighteningly rigid personalities within socialism, the only alternative he saw to capitalism, was devastating to him. He had also become worried about the threat which the growing power of the state posed to individual freedom, most of all intellectual freedom. Yet socialism inevitably involves the prospect of an expansion of state control over society and the individual… The direct result of Orwell’s dilemma is the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.4

Since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “Orwell Problem” has been the pretext for many a Marxist critique.5 Most famously, Isaac Deutscher wrote of its “underlying boundless despair”, caused by Orwell’s alleged failure to grasp dialectical materialism.6 More recently, the book has come under attack from feminist critics who argue that Orwell was misogynistic to the end.

This article attempts to address these critiques from the left by closely examining the context of Nineteen Eighty-Fourand Orwell’s late political beliefs, before delving into a radical textual study of the novel itself to make clear the true significance of this important work. As a result, I support the argument, made by John Newsinger and supported by Orwell’s biographers, that he was resolutely socialist in the final years of his life. However, it is not the intention of this article to suggest that Orwell was an exemplary person or an infallible socialist, but to show that his last work of fiction was an even more innovative piece of left-wing literature than is conventionally assumed.

Orwell’s last project

Before examining the text, it is necessary to define what Orwell’s goal was by the end of the 1940s. How was he articulating his socialist beliefs by his final decade? Was it a moment of development or despair?

Orwell had already achieved much in terms of documentary and political essay writing from the 1930s, through the Second World War and into the 1940s. He had comprehensively analysed capitalism’s disastrous effect on society in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Having tasted revolution in the Spanish Civil War—and having been betrayed by the Stalinist Republican government—he had written Homage to Catalonia (1938). His essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941) famously begins, “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”.7 There is substantial evidence that his politics began to radicalise during the Second World War; in an article in this journal, John Newsinger has already made a convincing argument that they developed far further to the left than has been traditionally realised:

He called for the takeover of the financial sector and secondly he was advocating expropriation, the taking away of the wealth and power of the rich, not their generous compensation for bankrupt industries. Orwell’s expropriations were intended to end, once and for all, “the dominance of a single social class”. And he advocated a radical limitation in incomes with a ratio of ten to one suggested as “the maximum normal variation”.8

If the idea of Orwell as a “liberal” or “conservative” is so out of sequence with his political writings, why then does it continue to circulate? This is no doubt due to the fact that his more ambiguous novels of the 1940s are boundlessly better known than his political essays and earlier novels. Orwell himself also seemed to favour his later work, disowning virtually all of the earlier novels save for 1939’s Coming Up for Air (which remains comparatively obscure).9 Animal Farm (1945), insofar as it was a novella-length allegory, did little to resolve his artistic ambition to produce a socialist literary masterpiece. This, then, is clearly what Nineteen Eighty-Four was designed to do: fulfil Orwell’s ambition to create a confluence of art and politics where neither quality would betray or override the other.

That this was so clearly on his mind is obvious from his 1944 review of Arthur Koestler’s dystopian novel Darkness at Noon (1940):

English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either… England is lacking [from direct exposure to totalitarianism]…what one might call concentration camp literature. The special world created by secret-police forces, censorship of opinion, torture, and frame-up trials is, of course, known about and to some extent disapproved of, but it has made very little emotional impact. One result of this is that there exists in England almost no literature of disillusionment about the Soviet Union.10

It is worth considering, too, how Orwell goes on to judge Koestler’s book, which concerns a communist leader’s journey from high-ranking official to political prisoner in a Stalinist dictatorship:

Moreover, from his [Koestler’s] European angle he can see such things as purges and mass deportations for what they are…he draws the conclusion: This is what revolutions lead to. There is nothing for it except to be a “short-term pessimist”, ie to keep out of politics, make a sort of oasis within which you and your friends can remain sane, and hope that somehow things will be better in a hundred years. At the basis of this lies his hedonism, which leads him to think of the Earthy Paradise as desirable. Perhaps, however, whether desirable or not, it isn’t possible. Perhaps some degree of suffering is ineradicable from human life, perhaps the choice before man is always a choice of evils, perhaps even the aim of Socialism is not to make the world perfect but to make it better. All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.

Let it be said in no uncertain terms that Orwell’s reaction to Koestler’s dystopia about a Communist dictatorship was that it was too gloomy. From this alone we are forced to discount the possibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a “betrayal” of the left—Orwell was clearly looking to produce a work of socialist literature, however, one unmoored to Moscow. This interpretation is resonant with several of his essays from the mid-1940s, particularly “Can Socialists Be Happy?” and “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, which frequently concerned the flaws in utopianism and the merits of pursuing a realisable socialist happiness.11 Another important development was his growing awareness of the situation among the American far-left, in particular the writings of Dwight MacDonald and James Burnham, members for a time of the Trotskyist Workers Party, and more importantly Orwell’s fellow contributors to Partisan Review.12 Orwell’s review of Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, published the same year as his ponderings on Koestler, were especially insightful in diagnosing Burnham’s embrace of “the spectacle of power”.13 Burnham had actually coldly broken with Marxism some years before in order to dedicate himself to the rise of the “managers”, a bureaucratic outgrowth of either the totalitarian left or right. Orwell exposed Burnham’s tactical shifts in favour of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia through the course of the war depending on which one was momentarily ascendant. His diagnosis of Burnham’s “power worship” was particularly prescient given the latter’s later involvement with the American conservative project and his role in founding the conservative magazine National Review. But it also confronted Orwell with Burnham’s model of a totalitarian super-state:

Starting from the magnetic core of the Eurasian heartland, the Soviet power, like the reality of the One of Neo-Platonism overflowing in the descending series of the emanative progression, flows outward, west into Europe, south into the Near East, east into China, already lapping the shores of the Atlantic, the Yellow and China Seas, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf. As the undifferentiated One, in its progression, descends through the stages of Mind, Soul, and Matter, and then through its fatal Return back to itself; so does the Soviet power, emanating from the integrally totalitarian centre, proceed outwards by Absorption.14

While this is clearly a prototype of Eurasia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is also interesting that the neighbouring state of Oceania is more or less what Burnham subscribed to in his embrace of American nationalism. Orwell, of course, was scornful of Burnham’s thesis, though this has not prevented deceitful US conservatives from claiming that he was “influenced” by Burnham.15

It cannot be seriously contended that Orwell was anything other than a socialist by the end of the 1940s. According to Bernard Crick: “In July 1949 (six months before his death) Orwell had his publishers issue a press release ­insisting that Nineteen Eighty-Four was ‘NOT INTENDED as an attack on Socialism’ (emphasis original), but was instead against a ‘totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colours’”.16 In addition, no remark or article has ever been identified that indicates his supposed abandonment of left-wing politics. The thesis that he did rests squarely on the interpretation of two facts about Orwell from this period. The first is that he wrote and submitted the infamous “list” to the Information Research Department (a subsection of the Foreign Office), containing the names of possible Communists and “fellow-travellers”. But, however unwise we consider this to be,17 it was still not a rejection of socialism; in Orwell’s letters from this period he still writes of upper class visitors to his sanatorium (he was by then gravely ill) being “enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful”.18 The second fact is that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, which makes repeated reference to Communist totalitarianism, and it is to this piece of work that we now turn.

Lies and the unreliable world

Faced with a storm of vicious lies targeted at her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt set out in 1967 to explore the act of political lying in her essay “Truth and Politics”. In this she notes several characteristics of the liar. Liars target “factual truth” which occurs “in the ever-changing affairs of men” rather than “rational truth”, which consists of “axioms, discoveries, theories” including mathematical rules that can always be discovered anew and therefore cannot be totally obliterated. She quotes the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in saying that if the nature of triangles could ever have affected the political sphere “that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed”, and argues that: “Dominion…when it attacks rational truth oversteps, as it were, its domain”.19 Factual truths, by contrast, appear in Arendt’s writing as precious, vulnerable goods that are in constant peril of interfering with political expediency: “Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a ­despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolise”.20 She also notes that in deceiving others, the liar is also hypocritically deceiving themselves; breaking with the “oneness” of the self, they are fabricating a world in which they must live with their deceit.21 She concludes by reaffirming the historical role of the truthtellers (such as philosophers, historians, judges, reporters) in maintaining the tension between truth and politics, and argues that nothing is more ­important than these ­apolitical fact-telling institutions.22

Nineteen Eighty-Four offers some interesting points in relation to this. To read the story backwards is to be presented with a plotline of increasingly dubious “facts”: The ruling Party tolerates party worker Winston Smith’s secretly insubordinate actions throughout Part I and Part II, despite the risk to the Party that his rebellion could catch on (as it does, having spread to his lover, Julia). Not only is revolution permitted so as to rein it in, but the Party supplies materials. A superior party worker, O’Brien, poses as a member of the anti-revolutionary “Brotherhood” and gives to him a book that turns out to be written by the Party. While Smith muses about the panopticon-style surveillance cameras that see all but cannot be watched simultaneously,23 in hindsight it is actually Smith in particular being monitored in a world of tens of thousands, if not millions, of others. O’Brien later tells him, after his dramatic betrayal, that he has kept this level of surveillance on Smith for some seven years. The prole shop he retreats to is secretly a Thought Police dummy. Despite elaborate precautions, his diary is read each day. His love affair with Julia, even more cautiously hidden, is observed by some means never disclosed (they retreat to the countryside, where there are fewer bugs). All this on top of what we might consider the more routine operations of a totalitarian state—the recording of conversations, the presence of detention cells, legions of torturers and so on.

This is how O’Brien presents the events of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Smith at the end of the novel, after lurid interrogation and torture scenes: as a vast game that he could never have hoped to win. Needless to say, Smith believes him—but should we? Orwell, after all, unveils O’Brien and the Party he represents as pathological and inveterate liars: “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal”.24

By asserting collective superiority, individual thoughts and truths are considered to be lunacy. O’Brien claims, by way of demonstration, that he can prove that 2 + 2 = 5 or float into the air if the Party so chooses, because the enforced shared hallucination allows him to pretend so. This is perfectly described by O’Brien as “collective solipsism”: reality as lived inside the collective head, rather than residing in the external world.25 This, then, goes beyond anything that Arendt claims about organised lying—Orwell imagines a world where rational truths, in addition to factual truths, have been conquered. And if everyone has been terrorised into believing a lie, the problem of “oneness” and hypocrisy is completely resolved. Indeed, the people of the state of Oceania are shown to flip between having always believed that they are at war with one nation to believing they are at war with another.

The peculiar quality of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that, rather than creating an unreliable narrator, Orwell has instead created an unreliable world. In entering this world, both we and Winston Smith are the only reliable people, knowing only what we have experienced ourselves in the course of encountering the world. Everything else, from the day-to-day happenings in the world and what causes them, is uncertain. Limiting though this is, our presence as a thinking person contains an awful amount of power—what we experience is enough to show that 2 + 2 = 4, and that O’Brien cannot levitate if he merely says so. In this way Orwell places the highest value possible on our own individual moral commitment to truth, a democratisation of Arendt’s solution of moral institutions. This is not mere individualism but a form of collective memory power-sharing—­significantly, Orwell’s original title for the book was “The Last Man in Europe”).26

There is a second quality to Nineteen Eighty-Four that has often gone ­unnoticed. Consider how Orwell describes the cold, charmless detention centre within the “Ministry of Love”, where Smith eventually finds himself: “The walls were all of white porcelain bricks, horribly white and clean. He wondered dully how they cleaned as high up as the ceiling… For a little while he occupied himself by calculating the number of porcelain bricks in the walls”.

Except that this doesn’t come from a passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, but from Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying;27 it is, in fact, a description of the 1930s London prison cell that Gordon Comstock wakes up in after a night of drunkenness. Orwell recycles this again in Oceania: “He was in a high-ceilinged windowless cell with walls of glittering white porcelain. Concealed lamps flooded it with cold light… Sometimes he tried to calculate the number of porcelain bricks in the walls of the cell. It should have been easy, but he always lost count at some point or another”.28

This, of course, is not coincidence—nor is it bad or lazy writing. It is ­intertextuality, the reuse of material for reference and parody. Of course, this is jumbled into the mix of other references about parodies that the book is packed full of, such as the references to MacDonald and Burnham, Stalin and Leon Trotsky, even half-remembered nursery rhymes. Orwell does all this and more—he turns his gaze inwards, at his own writing. At the end of a life dedicated to reading, writing, reviewing, criticising and evaluating the world, we must approach the reading of his final novel with the caution of crossing a minefield.

Intertextual examples, when the reader begins to look for them, emerge everywhere. The bomb that leaves behind a single booted foot in Coming Up for Air weaves its way into Nineteen Eighty-Four, this time leaving behind a human hand with a “bright red streak” in the pavement.29 And compare the lecturer in that novel with the demagogue of Hate Week in Nineteen-Eighty-Four:

The lecturer was a little chap of about forty, in a dark suit, with a bald head which he’d tried rather unsuccessfully to cover up with wisps of hair… The lecturer was rather a mean-looking little chap, but a good speaker. White face, very mobile mouth, and the rather grating voice that they get from constant speaking…now and again a phrase that struck out and caught my attention. “Bestial atrocities… Hideous outbursts of sadism… Rubber truncheons… Concentration camps… Iniquitous persecution of the Jews… Back to the Dark Ages… European civilization… Act before it is too late… Indignation of all decent peoples… Alliance of the democratic nations… Firm stand… Defence of democracy… Democracy… Fascism… Democracy… Fascism… Democracy”.30

On a scarlet-draped platform an orator of the Inner Party, a small lean man with disproportionately long arms and a large bald skull over which a few lank locks straggled, was haranguing the crowd. A little Rumpelstiltskin figure, contorted with hatred, he gripped the neck of the microphone with one hand while the other, enormous at the end of a bony arm, clawed the air menacingly above his head. His voice, made metallic by the amplifiers, boomed forth an endless catalogue of atrocities, massacres, deportations, lootings, rapings, torture of prisoners, bombing of civilians, lying propaganda, unjust aggressions, broken treaties. It was almost impossible to listen to him without being first convinced and then maddened.31

Consider also the famous first line of the novel, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. Even this is a pastiche (or parody) of the first lines from his earlier works, almost all of which feature clocks ­displaying the time.32

These instances give us some much-needed clues in navigating the unreliable world, and yet it is troubling how little attention critics have paid to Orwell’s craftsmanship. Instead they have conjectured about his political beliefs, health, and psyche. Nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions about the most paradoxical and central element to the novel: the mysterious revolutionary book by Emmanuel Goldstein. The failure to understand Orwell as a political artist, as we will see, undermines many studies of this important passage.

Academic critiques

The reputation of Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism (purported to be written by the Trotsky-esque figure, Goldstein) precedes it, and we encounter rumours about it long before Smith obtains a copy. In a sense Goldstein’s book represents various suppressed and “evil” books of the past, such as Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan and, in particular, the works of Trotsky about Stalinist Russia. When Smith begins to read this forbidden tome, Nineteen Eighty-Four does something truly extreme: it gives way to an extremely dry essay on political theory that tests even the most forgiving reader. As literary critic Erika Gottlieb notes, Orwell was “taken to task by his publishers and critics for interrupting the narrative flow of Nineteen Eighty-Four by inserting ‘a book within a book’, a lengthy historical treatise, which slows down the action. Orwell, however, was adamant, insisting that Goldstein’s book was indispensable and that it be kept at present place and length”.33 Orwell gives Goldstein a huge chunk of time and space to set out a Marxist critique of the totalitarian orders that govern Earth. Nonetheless, the world he dispassionately describes is a world that is foreign to us, foreign indeed to Smith and Julia who have been raised on the Party’s lies. “The primary aim of modern warfare…is to use up the product of the machine without raising the general standard of living”, Goldstein writes.34 Everything is subverted in favour of this (capitalist) goal, an inhuman mechanism of many millions of people. The text breaks off just as we sense Goldstein is driving towards a pivotal moment of explanation:

Here we reach the central secret…the never-questioned instinct that first led to the seizure of power and brought doublethink, the Thought Police, continuous warfare and all the other necessary paraphernalia into existence afterwards. This motive really consists…35

While this is surely mind-blowing to the book’s protagonists, Orwell satirises the process of reading itself by having Smith start with Chapter I (“Ignorance is Strength”, about the social structure of Oceania) whereupon he gets bored and flits to Chapter III (“War is Peace”, about the eternal war), before being interrupted by Julia, and then ends up re-reading most of Chapter I aloud to her (she presently becomes disinterested and falls asleep). In the process, Orwell’s readers have read parts of the book twice and not even in a consistent manner. Why does he do this?

Gottlieb notes two possible answers: “According to Alain Besançon and Jean-Pierre Devroey, two French critics of the novel, Orwell left the final secret unrevealed either because he was too careless to notice that he had left the riddle unanswered, or simply because he did not know how to answer it”.36 Gottlieb herself suggests the most likely answer: that the “secret” is really given by O’Brien during Smith’s interrogation in the next part (the motive is ultimate power through collective solipsism). The book’s main purpose, she concludes, is to link to us through time; Goldstein describes the flow of historical forces from the 1940s, giving a direct warning to Orwell’s initial readers. However, this side-steps some crucial questions that directly face the reader: how can it be a time-link if it is potentially a Party lie? Why make this time warp deliberately convoluted and hard going?

At face value, there is an easy anti-socialist argument to be made that it is deliberate bad writing, intended to show that the “sacred texts” of the revolutionary left are always dull, abstract and impractical to daily life. This, of course, would still be inconsistent with our knowledge of Orwell’s political beliefs in the 1940s. Orwell is perfectly capable of parodying the left, but never for the purpose of embracing the right. And, despite the tragedy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is entirely possible that Smith’s rebellion, had it been confined to finding his own personal joy and escapes in life, would have never been discovered. It would not be accurate to say that the novel argues for incremental change—evolutionary socialism rather than revolutionary socialism, in the terms of the age-old debate—but to protect the self and one’s thoughts when confronted by totalitarian evil. This, again, harmonises with Orwell’s commentary on Darkness at Noon, quoted above: “Perhaps some degree of suffering is ineradicable from human life, perhaps the choice before man is always a choice of evils, perhaps even the aim of socialism is not to make the world perfect but to make it better”. Furthermore, Newsinger has pointed out a close textual similarity between Goldstein’s title and Macdonald’s writings on the Soviet bureaucracy:

While there are some superficial similarities between Burnham’s [managerialist] and Macdonald’s theories, the evidence is clear that Orwell responded with considerable hostility to Burnham, whereas he found Macdonald’s particular version of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism generally convincing…the title of Goldstein’s secret book is The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, not The Theory and Practice of Managerial Revolution.37

Both Burnham and Macdonald saw the Soviet Union as non-socialist, totalitarian and bureaucratic. However, the key difference was that Burnham embraced the inexorable logic of a sweeping new managerial order; a logic that he thought intellectuals should submit to. Nothing could have been further from Orwell’s thought, and it is understandable here that he sided with Macdonald. This gives us an extra reason for believing that Goldstein’s book is to be paid attention to, rather than dismissed. But it does not demonstrate the significance of the way it is introduced.

Alerted to the hyper-sensitivity of Orwell to literature, we should be cautious about considering the purpose of Goldstein’s book at the heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. If we accept that the ordering of Smith’s reading of the book is not random or careless but a deliberate act of the author, we notice that Chapter 1 introduces the structure of Oceania through a conventional (Marxist) materialist analysis, while Chapter 3 explains the function of war in shaping the world, maintaining social order, and preserving the status quo between the Burnhamesque mega-nations. In other words, Chapter 3 explains Chapter 1. If we apply this method to the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we notice something new about the order of action in the story. Conventionally, the plot of the novel is that Smith’s rebellion starts with his diary (Chapter 1) and escalates from there until his capture. But what inspires this first act of rebellion? The clue is in the very first entry he writes: a clumsy, rushed paragraph about a film he sees at the cinema:

There was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him.38

Initially we are supposed to presume that Smith, starved of intellectual topics, has been forced to turn to “low culture” for inspiration. However, it is not until Part II that Smith realises that the mother’s shielding arm movement in the film reminds him of his own mother, and acknowledges for the first time that he is subconsciously haunted by childhood guilt. His dream “had also been comprehended by—indeed, in some sense it had consisted in—a gesture of the arm made by his mother, and made again thirty years later by the Jewish woman he had seen on the news film, trying to shelter the small boy from the bullets”.39 If we then go from Chapter 1, skipping Chapter 2, we find that Chapter 3 begins: “Winston was dreaming of his mother”.40

This non-standard reading makes us aware of the instigating reason behind Smith’s rebellion, about why he hates the regime so much; he rebels because subconscious trauma compels him to write the diary and explore the past. As a result, it is also arguable that, in failing to identify the cause of his dreams, he puts them down in concrete words that will betray him. He is not exactly destroyed by his own humanity; he is destroyed by his own lack of self-examination, a failure to think before acting. There is a strong case here that Orwell’s point is that it is possible to remain human, even against terrible odds—but that it requires intellect as much as it does human sensitivity. Ignorance (directly or indirectly) leads straight to Room 101.

If all of this seems contrived, we should remember that there is a direct precedent for this in another Orwell novel, Coming Up for Air. The action in this book leads from a single moment at the beginning, when George Bowling has a sudden, irrational flashback to his youth from reading the news. His desire to go back to the village of his childhood ends in nothing but alienation and a sense of loss. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the stakes are higher but the betrayal of the self is the same. Orwell’s fascination with the subconscious, and how our unpredictable natures may impinge on modernity and historical forces, is a discernible intention throughout his fiction.

Feminist and Marxist critiques

My interpretation is at odds here with a well-known feminist critique of the novel by Daphne Patai, who focuses her analysis on Orwell’s inherent misogyny and the extent to which Nineteen Eighty-Four can be considered a sexist book. Significantly, Patai also recognises the centrality of Goldstein’s book. She notes that while Smith reads the book, Julia “falls asleep… Her aim is to get as much genuine pleasure as she can out of the oppressive world in which she finds herself”.41 Patai expands on this by arguing that the whole novel is fundamentally based on the relationship between Smith and his treacherous superior O’Brien and that this cat-and-mouse “game” between them excludes Julia—presumably because she is a woman. Patai lists all the negative and sexist ways that women are perceived in the novel and concludes: “Orwell saw what men everywhere were doing—‘socialist’ men, capitalist men, fascist men… Clinging to an inherent dangerous and presumably inescapable notion of the masculine, yet aware of its deadly potentiality, Orwell could see no way out”.42

According to Patai, Orwell is simultaneously unaware of his ingrained misogyny and aware of it enough to lament it. Patai also turns to game theory to explain the relationship between O’Brien and Smith, which she freely admits does not work: “Winston, despite his complicity, is not a fully informed player of the game…his participation is not purely voluntary…finally, he cannot truly win”. Despite noting an instance in which Julia is presented favourably—when she speaks out in a conversation between O’Brien and Smith—and “the few other positive portrayals of women”,43 confirmation bias leads Patai to discard them and concentrate instead on perceived negative moments. This argument’s shortcomings have already been challenged comprehensively by Eckstein and Newsinger.44 But what is all the more frustrating is that Patai’s argument squanders a legitimate analysis about the misogyny of Orwell by flattening him into a caricature sexist incapable of challenging the oppression of women. Patai has singularly missed the opportunity to discover one of the most exciting aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four: the character of Julia being the clearest indication of feminism (in substance, if not in word) in Orwell’s late writing.

“When Julia falls asleep while Smith is reading Goldstein’s book out loud”, writes Newsinger, “it is not because she is stupid or shallow, it is because she is not interested in politics”.45 However, it would be more accurate to say that Julia’s sense of politics comes from freedom—freedom to love, to have sex and to be herself in the countryside. Instead of reinforcing a familiar narrative about men being political and women being apolitical, Julia is aware that sex is “a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act”—all the more so because the orgasm has been declared illegal.46 She goes on to argue that the frustration caused by the suppression of sex is a tool used by the Party to channel hate—demonstrating a pre-1960s engagement in sexual politics47—as well as correctly perceiving that the pro-Goldstein “Brotherhood” is “a lot of rubbish which the Party had invented”.48 This shows a profound and sustained interest in politics that surpasses Smith’s own degree of political development. The reality of the situation, organised thus by Orwell, is that her strategy for survival is better and more effective than his, making her a fitter hero(ine) figure than the anti-hero male protagonist ­(evidentially, she claims to have fallen in love with many Party men and lived to tell the tale). Finally, it is worth pointing out that as an engineer who is “fond of using her hands and felt at home with machinery”, Julia resembles that classic feminist wartime figure Rosie the Riveter.49

It is instructive to note that there is another textual coincident and precedent for such a prominent female character: Julia shares her name with Comstock’s fiancé in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This Julia is a calm and steady character, compared to Comstock’s melodramatic rebellion against capital (which fails), although she is considerably less engaged in politics than the later Julia. Even if we consider her to be a prototype, an unfinished sketch of what we might call the Orwellian Woman, it is nonetheless true that Orwell’s male protagonists come up lacking time after time; they are tragic anti-heroes to the last. Perhaps we should consider his wiser, female supporting characters as the real heroines of the plot. Accordingly, we should be appreciative of the women that find representation in Nineteen Eighty-Four (even if Patai ignores them), such as Julia herself, the prole woman who is “solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms” and a beautiful voice that Smith appreciates in part 2,50 or the self-sacrificing character of his mother.

Patai is surely correct, however, that Orwell’s treatment of women was haphazard, and never specifically “feminist”; his instinct for sensing injustice merely led him to adopt substantively feminist positions in his fiction and reportage.51 His “Othering” of women was perhaps the result of a sense of alienation from them that also affected his treatment of working class people—there are no prole heroes in Nineteen Eighty-Four ready to take the fight to the Party, for instance. This ambiguity towards and frustration with women runs throughout Orwell: consider the following passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

He remembered how once he had been walking down a crowded street when a tremendous shout of hundreds of voices—women’s voices—had burst from a side-street a little way ahead. It was a great formidable cry of anger and despair… His heart had leapt. It’s started! He had thought. A riot! The proles are breaking loose at last! When he had reached the spot it was to see a mob of two or three hundred women crowding round the stalls of a street market… It appeared that one of the stalls had been selling tin saucepans. They were wretched, flimsy things, but cooking-pots of any kind were always difficult to get. Now the supply had unexpectedly given out… Winston watched them disgustedly. And yet, just for a moment, what almost frightening power had sounded in that cry from only a few hundred throats! Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered?52

Evidence of this mystification of women can be found again within the lecture scene in Coming Up for Air where the lecturer is raving about “democracy” and “fascism” while Bowling sizes up the people in attendance: “There was one other woman in the audience, a girl with dark hair, one of the teachers at the Council School. Unlike the others she was really listening, sitting forward with her big round eyes fixed on the lecturer and her mouth a little bit open, ­drinking it all in”.53

Interestingly, this figure is more ambiguous than the others—again, she is a prototype for Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Julia. Unlike the “two old blokes” from the Labour Party, the local Communist Party men or the bored middle-aged wives of other attendees, this young woman’s opinions are unknown. Bowling cannot read her mind as she watches the spectacle before them. The future, which belongs to the young woman and the children she teaches, is in her power. Does Orwell trust her? Perhaps not, with her “drinking it all in”, but he does seem to identify a new force in politics away from the traditional sterile sphere of men. If only, Orwell implies condescendingly, they could shout about something that matters.

Sharing Patai’s psychological approach, Deutscher (who, incidentally, appeared on Orwell’s IRD list) offered the interpretation featured at the start of this essay: that the book was a “warning” that “defeats itself because of its underlying boundless despair”. Deutscher’s grounds for this assertion rest on the political nature of the “Orwell Problem”, caused by Orwell’s “rationalism” and the rejection of a Marxist dialectical materialist Weltanschauung or world-view:

The authentic Marxist may claim to be mentally better prepared than the rationalist is for the manifestations of irrationality in human affairs, even for such manifestations as Stalin’s Great Purges. He may feel upset or mortified by them, but he need not feel shaken in his Weltanschauung, while the rationalist is lost and helpless when the irrationality of the human existence suddenly stares him in the face. If he clings to his rationalism, reality eludes him. If he pursues reality and tries to grasp it, he must part with his rationalism.54

By this reading, Deutscher’s Orwell is caught vacillating between Trotsky and utter despair, while his character similarly hesitates with his frustrated reading of Goldstein. This is certainly plausible, but Deutscher relies too heavily on the Orwell he knew personally rather than the book in question, with a series of scathing anecdotes about his paranoia. He remains cynical of Orwell’s capacity to be self-aware (which is, curiously, the foundation stone of Orwellian politics and truthfulness) and makes the claim that Ingsoc, the totalitarian political party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “is not a social body actuated by any interest or purpose…[but] a phantom-like emanation of all that is foul in human nature”. Ironically, Orwell had criticised Burnham in 1946 for propounding the same thing: “It is curious that in all his talk about the struggle for power, Burnham never stops to ask why people want power. He seems to assume that power hunger, although only dominant in comparatively few people, is a natural instinct that does not have to be explained”.55

It is hard to reconcile Deutscher’s characterisation of Goldstein’s book as a touchstone of despair in a novel that “shrieks” about the coming “Black Millennium”56 with this new reading of the text. With its textual symmetry with Macdonald’s critique of oligarchy, its indictment of a Burnhamesque managerial world, and its peculiar usefulness in unlocking Smith’s predicament, it fits less and less with the establishment picture of Orwell the anti-communist. Nor can we be wholly sure about whether it correctly describes the world, and thus how much we should identify Goldstein’s opinions with Orwell’s—this is almost certainly intentional. Finally, it is Deutscher’s reading of Orwell as a “rationalist” writer that feels the most misplaced. Orwell was not a political scientist and made political predictions hesitantly;57 his greatest strength lay in being above all an emotive writer who appealed to readers’ empathy. Throughout the pages of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Keep the Aspidistra Flying we find Orwell’s chief concern is with making us live the lives of the poor: abjection, shame and injustice. Smith’s journey fits best into this pattern, and for this we need look no further than the text itself:

He seized one of Winston’s remaining front teeth between his powerful thumb and forefinger. A twinge of pain shot through Winston’s jaw… “You are rotting away”, he said; “you are falling to pieces. What are you? A bag of filth. Now turn around and look into that mirror again. Do you see that thing facing you? That is the last man. If you are human, that is humanity”.58

Orwell’s own Wigan Pier

Deutscher concludes his piece with a striking anecdote from the winter of 1949/50:

“Have you read this book? You must read it, sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the Bolshies!” With these words a blind, miserable news-vendor recommended to me 1984 in New York, a few weeks before Orwell’s death. Poor Orwell, could he ever imagine that his own book would become so prominent an item in the programme of Hate Week?59

This forms the crux of Deutscher’s argument about Nineteen Eighty-Four: that whether or not it was a successful story or intellectually justified, it ultimately proved unsuccessful in rallying the masses to the left—driving them instead into the fearmongering arms of the right.

For a novel that is so well-known, however, I argue here that it is misunderstood. This is partly because Orwell died too soon after publication to defend it properly. But it also reflects our inability to come to terms with his political and artistic achievements. It is also the legacy of a left that has been eager to abandon the book to the right, even though it never belonged there. We have allowed the formation of a narrative around the book, but not of the book, obscuring Orwell’s aims. We have ignored his techniques; his unreliable world and referentiality. We have ignored his reinterpretation of gender roles in literature and politics, his anticipation of the sexual revolution of the 1960s from the 1940s.

Hope may lie with the proles, as Smith ventured time and again. He was never betrayed by them; he was betrayed by the Party. In many ways Orwell’s literary journey ended in the same mysterious way as his journalistic ­pilgrimage to Wigan Pier, without ever finding his true destination. But the secrets of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its riddles, references and deceptive cleverness, stray beyond that world’s bleak horizons to territories of political imagination the rest of us are yet to travel.

James Preece lives and works in Greater Manchester.


1 Taylor, 2003, p401.

2 Snowden, 2013.

3 For example, Glover, 2016. In its proper context, the quote used indicates that Orwell approved of monarchies insofar as they were not a totalitarian state: “It is better that they should tie their leader-worship on to some figure who has no real power”.

4 Eckstein, 1985, p53.

5 For some particularly savage Marxist reactions see Crick, 1980, p394.

6 Deutscher, 1955.

7 Orwell, 1984, p138.

8 Newsinger, 2014, pp194-195.

9 “The proofs of Burmese Days [1934], recently reviewed from America, made him ‘spew’”—Taylor, 2003, p137. Meanwhile, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) he vowed never to republish in his lifetime (see Peter Davison’s introduction to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell, 1987, pvi).

10 Orwell, 1946a.

11 Orwell, 1943, and 1946b respectively.

12 See Newsinger, 1999, pp124-125.

13 Orwell, 1946c.

14 Quoted in Orwell, 1946c.

15 See the entry on Conservapedia—

16 Crick, 1980, p395.

17 Contrary to early impressions that the list was Orwell’s initiative, Timothy Garton Ash revealed letters that prove that his friend Celia Kerwin was instructed to prompt Orwell for a list—see Garton Ash, 2003. Nevertheless, Orwell’s list was written as conjecture rather than intelligence, which the authorities must have understood.

18 Crick, 1980, p390.

19 Arendt, 1977, pp226-227.

20 Arendt, 1977, p236.

21 Arendt, 1977, p240.

22 Arendt, 1977, pp255-256.

23 The original concept of the panopticon comes from Jeremy Bentham but in the 20th century it became associated with totalitarianism and Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular. It supposes that an unseen viewer will not have to monitor a whole population simultaneously. Because they are not seen, the population don’t know whether they are being watched at any particular time so must act as if they are.

24 Orwell, 1989, p261.

25 Orwell, 1989, p279.

26 Orwell became especially interested in determining truth following his experiences in Spain—see Orwell, 1937, and also Orwell, 1946d, in which he discusses the 1918 testimony of Maxim Litvinov painting Leon Trotsky and Grigori Zinoviev in a positive light, a document he claims the Stalinist left—quite apart from the Soviet regime—would uniformly and consciously have rather “suppressed” or forged.

27 Orwell, 1987, pp198-201.

28 Orwell, 1989, pp237-241.

29 Orwell, 1989, p87.

30 Orwell, 1990, pp151-153.

31 Orwell 1989, p188.

32 See Orwell, 1987; 1990; 2000 and 2014—“It was only half past eight, but the month was April, and there was a closeness in the air, a threat of the long, stifling midday hour” (Burmese Days), “As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion” (A Clergyman’s Daughter), “The clock struck half past two” (Keep the Aspidistra Flying), “I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I’d nipped out of bed” (Coming Up For Air).

33 Gottlieb, 1991, p12.

34 Orwell, 1989, p196.

35 Orwell, 1989, p226.

36 Gottlieb, 1991, p16.

37 Newsinger, 1999, p127.

38 Orwell, 1989, pp10-11.

39 Orwell, 1989, p167.

40 Orwell, 1989, p31.

41 Patai, 1982, p867; see also Elaine Hoffman Baruch’s criticism quoted in Newsinger, 1999, p130.

42 Patai, 1982, pp868-869.

43 Patai, 1982, pp865-868.

44 Eckstein, 1985; Newsinger, 1999, pp130-132.

45 Newsinger, 1999, p132.

46 Orwell, 1989, p133.

47 Orwell, 1989, p139.

48 Orwell, 1989, p159.

49 Orwell, 1989, p136.

50 Orwell, 1989, p144. Nor is the beautiful voice simply an aesthetic appreciation; the woman makes something beautiful out of a mechanically-generated tune while labouring over housework.

51 One frequently overlooked example is Orwell’s remarks about female militias in the Spanish Civil War: “A few months earlier no one would have seen anything comic in a woman handling a gun”—Orwell, 1986, p6.

52 Orwell, 1989, p73.

53 Orwell, 1990, p155.

54 Deutscher, 1955.

55 Orwell, 1946c.

56 Deutscher, 1955.

57 The press release for Nineteen Eighty-Four, quoted above in Crick, 1980, makes it quite clear that Orwell did not consider it a prediction, either.

58 Orwell, 1989, p285.

59 Deutscher, 1955.


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